While most other Jewish women I knew were planning their Seder menus and preparing their homes for Pesach, I was organising an iftar.
I had never been to an iftar, the evening meal at which Muslims break their fast during the month of Ramadan, so the idea of hosting one at my house slightly terrified me. What did I need? How do most Muslims prefer to break the fast?
Growing up, we always made fresh-squeezed lemonade to end Yom Kippur, a tradition I carried on as an adult. But of course, that was the standard only at my house; at shul, they would serve orange juice. At other people’s houses, who knows? ‘Don’t worry. You just need dates,’ my nominally Muslim friend told me. ‘They’ll eat dates, then go pray, then eat a meal.’ I scrolled through my Whatsapp feed nervously. Aha! Abda was bringing dates. Perfect!
What about the rest of the meal? My own Jewish mother regularly tells me I’m an atypical Jewish mother, but when it comes to the idea of twenty people arriving at my house and not having enough to eat, I’m about as conventional as they come. Would we have sufficient food? But yes: Mandy was bringing borscht, and Mahmooda samosas and spring rolls. Abda would have enough Afghani pilau and halwa to serve a football team.
Thank goodness we were organising this together—me and my Jewish and Muslim sisters from our interfaith women’s network, Nisa Nashim. There would be fresh-baked bread and salad and mogo fried cassava and cookies and snacks, and I was making two Ukrainian cheesecakes and bourekas, too. The first reception room in my house would be laid out with food tables and chairs and the second with blankets to pray on. Good! All good!
I checked the Eventbrite – were people coming? Then a final fear crept into my heart: Was this an act of cultural/religious appropriation? Did I have no place hosting a Muslim ceremonial meal? I tried to imagine one of my non-Jewish friends inviting me to a seder at their house. I shuddered. Maybe hosting an iftar was a mistake!
As the women streamed into my house, all my doubts melted away. Each was kinder than the next; all were full of gratitude and affection. ‘I told my friends at the mosque that our Jewish sister was hosting the iftar tonight,’ one said. ‘They couldn’t believe it!’ The tabletops and piano were heaped with food.
In addition to Jewish and Muslim women from our network, there were a number of Christian women: a Church of England deacon; the vice president of a women’s peace initiative; a representative from the Focolare Movement (a church movement begun by, and always presided over by, a woman). We were also joined by neighbours.
Amongst Muslims all over the world, a typical Iftar would mean different things. However, one recommendation from the example of the Prophet Muhammad would be to break the fast with water and dates. It's recommended that you keep the food part of the main meal as simple as possible.
It was such a pleasure to both help plan and attend an iftar, hosted at a Jewish sister’s (Karen’s) house, attended by both Jewish and Muslim women (and women who were neither).
We shared the cooking among us, with an emphasis on some dishes from the countries from which refugees have recently fled, in the spirit of raising funds for refugees. So I decided upon an Afghan dish - Kabuli pulao, a rice dish which is probably one of the country’s most famous meals.
Out of respect for everyone and Karen’s kosher home, we decided to do vegetarian dishes only (which was great for me as I am a pescatarian anyway!). The dish is usually made with meat of some kind, which is first simmered with aromatic spices to produce a broth used to cook the rice in. I decided upon chickpeas as a substitute, and the rice was topped with the distinctive caramelised juliennes of carrots and plump sultanas. I also cooked halwa; the word means different things in different cultures. In keeping with my Pakistani heritage, I made it the traditional way with semolina, butter, nuts, a cardamom infused syrup and finished with a few drops of kewra water.
The table spread with food from so many parts of the world was quite a sight to behold. The sisterhood, support, respect and affection from the Jewish sisters for the Muslim women who were fasting was incredible. We are different in many ways, but we are also alike in our mutual quest for peace, for understanding, and for empathy. Finding commonality where people expect you to be divided, lifting each other in spite of the negativity that surrounds us, enjoying each other’s company and sharing our mutual quest to promote peace is really quite priceless.
Before the breaking of the fast — or rather, breakings, as the times varied slightly according to the women’s Shia and Sunni traditions — several of the Muslim women shared heart-breaking accounts of their recent trip to Syria. Shenaz, Husna, and others had visited Syria several times over recent years, collecting educational materials and other support for displaced families and orphans living in desperate conditions as the 11-year war continues.
We talked about Ukraine and Israel/Palestine, too. That day in my garden I had watched a robin aggressively chasing a pair of sparrows nesting in the hedge, and magpies scaring the goldfinches away from the feeder. We talked about whether territorial aggression and violence is a natural instinct — more particularly among males? Does power corrupt, whoever holds it? Or might women leaders and peacemakers find a gentler, more pragmatic way to reach out across our differences?
We couldn’t answer all the questions we raised, but all in all, it was very special for all of us to work together to make this event happen, to learn from our sisters, and to fill our Panettone tin with contributions for a better future. If you want to join our efforts, you can do so through our JustGiving page, where we’ve raised £700 for our two charities to date.